Once upon a time, I had a dream. A dream of being able to stand in front of a group of people and speak, with excitement, passion and confidence, without fear taking over, making my hands tremble and voice shake, without the constant worry of being good enough, intelligent enough, or entertaining enough. If you’ve been reading for a while now, you’ll know that it’s an ongoing challenge, and something I’ve been trying to tackle at every opportunity. But getting my body to cooperate with the direction in which my mind wants to go has proved… difficult. The first efforts were small. Attending meetings at work, and actually speaking up instead of keeping my mouth shut for an hour. Breaking out Cranium at parties and choosing Star Performer over Word Worm. Facilitating workshops to groups of 5 or 6 . Tiny steps along the path to my goal of shaking free the fear. Talking the talk is becoming easier, but physically walking the walk? Not so much.
Through those workshops, I realised something that helped push me forward: I wasn’t public speaking, I was teaching. I was giving people information that they could use to help them succeed. When I started thinking of it that way, it was a doddle. No longer was I in the spotlight, all eyes on me, ready for judgment day, but I was simply being blessed with the opportunity to pass on helpful information to others. The desire to help outweighed the fear, and it became okay. It became okay when it stopped being about me.
A few weeks ago, however, I was put into one of the most terrifying situations I could imagine. All the extroverts out there may very well laugh at this – but I had to do a public reading of a piece of my own written work. Fiction. In a public bookshop. I couldn’t use the same mechanisms I could in front of a class, because I wasn’t “teaching” or providing anyone with helpful information. I was just baring my words to the world; something I’d poured my heart into was to be lifted from the refuge of the page and thrust into the great wide open. I was petrified. I arrived at the bookshop an hour early, frantically texting one of my dearest friends, ordering a large glass of wine, and trying to remember to breathe. The seconds crawled by and the world followed in slow motion; rows upon rows of chairs slowly growing, bodies starting to fill them. I’d prayed nobody would come, but the faces kept coming, their words of encouragement and support filtering through my ears, landing heavy on a rapidly beating heart. 6:00 rolled around. I was up.
The 10 minutes seemed almost an eternity, but I kept reading, my eyes glued to the page. As the words came out, I tried to lose myself in the story I’d created, forcing my mind into the scene and the character, subsequently forcing out thoughts of self-deprecation. I made it through, took a deep breath, and lifted my head. I saw rows of smiling faces and clapping hands. I heard “wow”s whispered and was asked when I was going to finish the book. It didn’t seem real – I felt like I was living someone else’s life for a moment; someone who was actually able to do something well in the real world – and I couldn’t quite grasp it. A moment I’ve longed for for as long as I can remember, and I came out the other side unscathed.
So I did what any hip and cool person would do, and proceeded to burst into floods of tears. I don’t know what it was – the release of weeks worth of pent-up nervous energy, the unexpected victory, the compliments I’d spent years convincing myself I wasn’t worthy of receiving – or a combination of the three, but I bawled like a BABY. In front of everybody. Luckily I was back in my seat, and even luckier I was struck after my performance, but it was something I’d never felt before. As with every difficult thing, practice = less panic and greater confidence, so as uncomfortable and scary as it is, I have to keep going.
So, next steps? I’ll do what I always do, and throw myself in at the deep end. My new job starts in a matter of weeks, fifty percent of which is going to be teaching in the biggest classroom in the building. This weekend and next, I’ll be standing in for a couple of DJ friends of mine who host their own radio show (who just had a beautiful baby girl, who though adorable, may not fit right at home in a radio studio). Hosting it. I want to learn new coping mechanisms of how to throw off the anxiety and embrace the challenges and opportunities. Mentally, I think I might be on the right track, but how do you overcome the body’s natural tendencies to fall into the physiological reactions to fear? The heart racing, the hands shaking, the pit of the stomach wallowing, and the mouth drying. Changing your mind about something is one thing, but changing your body’s defiant behaviour is quite another. I want to get in front of those classes and behind the mic and just bask in the excitement of it all – project enthusiasm and confidence, rather than the telltale signs of nerves. I’m really working on changing the way I think about the situations – but any tips on altering the way I physically react would be hugely appreciated.